The holidays are over. The lights will soon be coming down. The dreariness of January, February, March, and – yes – even April looms like a black hole of bah humbug. And yet, this seemingly dreary time of year in our beloved Northeast can be a great gift. A new year symbolizes hope and beginnings. It’s time to leave last year behind and be present to what’s possible now and going forward.
Days and weeks that are characterized by cold temperatures and early nights are ideal for indoor projects. Do you want to knit a sweater? Build a birdhouse? Bake sourdough bread from a starter? Do you want to finally do the writing you’ve been dreaming about getting to? Getting started on a memoir, perhaps, or a novel? There’s no better time to start than now.
What are you afraid of?
That’s a silly question! Tucker Max is a co-founder of scribemedia.com, one of a multitude of online resources to help people start and finish their books. He cites these six fears as the demons that keep us from putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard):
• Fear 1: “I don’t have a book in me.”
• Fear 2: “I’m afraid my book isn’t original enough.”
• Fear 3: “I’m afraid my book won’t be good enough.”
• Fear 4: “I’m afraid no one will care about my book.”
• Fear 5: “I’m afraid my book will upset people.”
• Fear 6: “I’m afraid my book will make me look stupid.”
You probably recognize yourself in several if not all of these excuses. I know I do. The fact is that everyone does. Oh, and for me there’s another one that looms very large:
• Fear 7: “I’m afraid of the blank page.”
Admittedly, that’s a whole lot of fear to work around and through. It’s uncomfortable. It’s relentless. It takes courage and compassion to get started. Don’t despair or be discouraged. Jump into the boat with the rest of us and be assured that there’s assistance for the fearful naysayers in us all.
Start where you are
Someone who understands courage and compassion when it comes to connecting to your creative self is Suzi Banks Baum, a writer and creativity coach based in the Berkshires. I don’t remember how I was introduced to her, but it was several years ago, and from the moment I saw and read through her website I knew I wanted to learn more from her (suzibanksbaum.com).
At the very beginning of her About page is the declaration, “Here Is What I Want for You,” stating definitively to use your voice and hands and express your truth. Her lovely definition of herself is:
“I’m sprinkled with stars
Look at my skin, I’m freckled by time.
Every book, billboard, poem, song on
the radio, my babies’ cries and vee’s
of geese flying over the laundry line
are still within me, echoing. Even
my father’s voice calling my name
in reprimand and the sound of car
tires in snow at the lake still
murmur within me.
I dream of ice and people and plans.
I taste my dream in my mouth, like
Nehi Root Beer. I have come upon
roadblocks, barriers, abuse, with
holding tax, and diverted momentum
and still, I am unstoppable.
I am uncontainable joy.”
If you can spend January arriving at a definition of yourself that expresses who you really are, you’re off to a great start in the new year. That’s what I’m going to do. But I digress.
“There is nothing better than beginning,” Suzi shared when I spoke with her about getting a writing habit going. “Invest in a decent notebook, something that feels good in your hands. Line up some sharp pencils and a pen,” she said, “and find a regular time in your schedule and life in which you can write for 20 minutes a day to get started.” That sounds simple enough until you look at your calendar and see the work schedules and appointments and other activities crammed into it…
If you’re serious, though, set the groundwork. For a week or so, keep a log of how you spend every hour between waking and sleeping. Think about what you can give up so that you can give yourself the time. Suzi advises, too, that “if you think of writing time as only the minutes you spend with a pencil in your hand, you will become frustrated very quickly. Many people say that washing dishes is writing time,” she said, adding, “paying attention in your daily life allows you to gather details which you’ll use in your writing.”
When you’ve identified the time and place you want to block out to write, commit to it. “You build your desire by repeatedly writing in small doses. If you work diligently but not over-vigorously, your power of attention will increase. Also,” Suzi added, “pass over your digital reliance and write by hand. Having a device in your hands is too distracting. Start with a pencil or pen on paper and, as the poet Myra Shapiro says, ‘First thought, best thought.’ Whatever pops into your head to write about, go with it.”
Working with a deadline
If you’re the kind of person who works best when there’s a very real deadline, there’s a writing challenge that could be right (write?) up your alley: National Novel Writing Month (known as NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the 30 or 31 days of a month. That’s approximately 1600 words a day. A community of fellow writers facing the challenge can be extremely helpful, and as you can imagine, it’s firmly established online. From the NaNoWriMo website, you sign up for the challenge and receive all the support you might need.
I discovered this challenge when I found the book No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Chris Baty. Baty was the founder of the movement, way back in 1999, though it has evolved past his involvement. When I saw it, I was immediately attracted to the concept. It was around this time of year (mid-December) with long, cold months looming, and though the official month for this challenge is November, I couldn’t imagine taking it on with the holidays looming. I thought the dreary and long month of March would be perfect.
The book explains how to prep yourself with a novel “road map” of sorts based on what kind of story you want to tell, and there’s lots of solid information about how to stay focused and keep going. I was pumped, and I’m proud to say that I got a group of friends committed to trying this several years ago, and that two of us completed the challenge. It was a challenge, for sure, but what a thrill to finish.
Keeping it real
A novel-writing challenge can be intoxicating, but it can also be deflating, turning into yet another way for your inner critic to send you right back to the Seven Biggest Fears mentioned in the beginning of this piece. Writing – like making art or music – is by necessity a solitary act, and that act of meeting yourself on the page can be really scary. It helps to be disciplined and persevering, but it helps to have support, too. If you’re serious about your writing – and you’ll get there if you’re committed to doing it – you’ll want to find a group of fellow writers. A writer’s group is typically four to eight people who get together regularly to read and discuss their works in progress. Ask at your local library if there’s one there or nearby.
The pandemic led to more and more writers meeting together on Zoom, and writing coaches nationwide now offer workshops that can include people from around the world, though they typically include people from a particular area. If you’re really shy or reticent, this can be a great forum for you, as you can participate in all ways oral, but you can turn off the video so that people can’t see you (or you can select when you might want it on or off).
“A writer’s group is a place you can find kinship,” Suzi said, “but start slow. It’s helpful to ask for specific feedback, as this lessens the pressure on everyone participating to sound judgmental about the work as a whole. ‘Tell me what you think’ is a burden on everyone. ‘Is the character believable?’ is something people can weigh in on with clarity,” she said. “Participating in a good group or workshop is like playing really good tennis,” Suzi said. “It ups your game.”
Seeking inspiration from other authors
We all have favorite authors whose books have stayed with us long after reading them. Turn to them for inspiration. Remind yourself that the only way their books made it to your shelf is that they faced their fears and did the writing. Study their style and try it on for size as a launching-off point to experiment with. Part of the preparation for the novel-writing challenge is to identify the styles and genres of favorite authors. Do you love to read mysteries? Romance novels? Memoir? Historical fiction? Embrace what feels right, don’t try to be someone you’re not.
As with anything new, it really comes down to getting started and then sticking with it. Suzi’s three essentials for starting and keeping a writing practice are:
• A clear, clutter-free place to work;
• A room with a door that closes; and
• An agreement with the people who share the house or with whom you’re in regular phone contact that you will be unreachable for a specific period of time every day.
“The powerful action of daily writing is to digest and integrate our life experiences,” Suzi said. “Daily life flies by and we lose the integration of our thoughts and feelings. The ‘end’ of one year and the ‘beginning’ of another provides a natural time for reflection; a time to take stock.”
We are blessed to have so many resources that support creative work locally, nationally, and even internationally. Here are some to get you started.
Main Street Magazine would love to read the descriptions of yourself that you develop through your writing in January. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Suzi and her offerings, including how she supports a Daily Creative Practice: www.suzibanksbaum.com.
Should you want to explore the “novel in 30 days” challenge: www.nanowrimo.org.
The author of the best-selling book The Memoir Project, Marion Roach is a generous memoir coach and who offers lots of online learning tools. Take a look at www.marionroach.com.
The novelist Jamie Cat Callan sends a weekly newsletter to subscribers with thoughts and prompts to keep you writing and thinking. www.jamiecatcallan.com.
There’s a Hudson Valley branch of The Writers Institute that offers workshops for all levels of writers. www.writerstudio.com.
The International Women’s Writing Guild offers “a global village for mighty, soulful women writers.” They’re at www.iwwg.org.
Your local library!